Posts Tagged ‘Roy Liran’

Egypt, the Quran, Jericho, and Hebrew

February 18, 2011

Egypt has fallen off the front page as protests in other countries grab the media’s attention. Protests are sexier than their aftermath; they photograph better and they allow TV reporters to provide breathless running commentary.

But without diminishing the achievement of Egypt’s (and Tunisia’s) protesters, one can see a much more difficult task ahead: preparing for a democratic (or other, workable) system of government.

Some pundits in Israel and elsewhere have argued that Islam is inimical to democracy. One might say the same about Judaism, of course, but Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of the Hebrew University’s political science department, points out that even ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in Israeli democracy.

In any case, Avineri argues, that is not the point. The important question is the degree to which the mechanisms needed for a democratic society are in place in Egypt. This will become evident in the months to come.

A four-hour crash course on Islam and the Jews, held last week as continuing education for Israeli tour guides, was a refreshing eye-opener.

Here are just a few points, not necessarily in order of importance, made by the lecturer, Prof. Meir M. Bar-Asher, of the Hebrew University’s department of Arabic language and literature:

1) Muslim proponents of differing points of view cherry-pick supporting quotations from the Quran, just as Jews and Christians do from the Bible.

2) Parts of the Quran are associated with Muhammad’s Mecca period (610–622 CE) and parts with the Medina period (622–632 CE). The verses relating to Jews in the earlier period are mainly positive, whereas the verses from the later period are mainly negative. Take your pick.

3) The sobriquet “the People of the Book” in relation to the Jews appeared first in the Quran.

4) The Quran adopts some Old Testament terms, such as the names of paradise (Gan Eden) and hell (gehenom).

5) Jerusalem is sacred to Islam. It is not mentioned explicitly in the Quran, but sura (chapter) 17, verse 1 refers to al-Aqsa Mosque, which the commentary says is Jerusalem. Jerusalem may not have been considered sacred in the beginning, but that does not make it any less sacred now.

The presence of an 11,000-year-old stone tower has led archaeologists to call ancient Jericho the oldest city on earth, even though it was actually only a settlement of hunter gatherers at the time.

But why was the tower built in Jericho (some 24 miles northeast of Jerusalem)? Doctoral candidate Roy Liran and Dr. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department say it was needed for protection from both physical and metaphysical dangers, but that the villagers had to be convinced to put in the huge effort required to erect it.

To that end, an individual or group of individuals exploited the villagers’ fears of the dark to get them to construct the world’s first public building, while at the same time bolstering the political and social status of the initiators.

The two researchers had previously suggested that the tower and the wall below it were cosmological markers aligned with Mt. Qarantal (the highest peak overlooking Jericho) and the shadow cast over the village on the longest day of the year.

Now, in an article published in the journal Antiquity, the authors argue that a 3-D reconstruction reveals that the shadow hits the tower before dramatically swallowing up the entire village. “The tower was built … as a guardian against the dangers present in the darkness cast by a dying sun’s last rays of light,” they say.

According to the researchers, the tower may be “the earliest example of manipulation and exploitation of primeval fears, manifested in the form of megalithic architecture.”

The Academy of the Hebrew Language needs your help, according to the daily Ha’aretz. It is stuck for Hebrew translations of “compost,” “composter,” and “composting.”

The current proposals are variations on the Hebrew three-letter root meaning “rot” or “decompose.” But according to Ronit Gadish, the academy’s scientific secretary, the negative connotations of those words get in the way of persuading the public to recycle its organic garbage.

I think the academy is working too hard. It should just consider compost as a four-consonant (oops! That’s actually five consonants, as an eagle-eyed reader pointed out) Hebrew root and decline it as we decline computer-related words we’ve taken from English, such as “click” and “format.”

The noun would remain compost, a composter (the container) would be a mecampest, and composting would be ceempoost. And once again we would prove the robustness of Hebrew through its borrowings from other languages. So simple.